Muhammad Ammar Hidayahtulloh
A postgraduate student at Master of Development Practice, the University of Queensland and a researcher at ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta.
COVID-19 resulted not only in global health and economic crisis but also the disruption of the democratic process. Many countries worldwide have decided to postpone elections, including the world’s oldest democracy, the United States. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) (2020) has recorded the postponement of election in 57 countries across five continents with a total of 99 general elections as of 10 June 2020. The Indonesian Government also announced on 21 March 2020 the delay of its regional elections (Farisa, 2020a).
The Government offered three reasons for the delay of the Indonesian regional elections: to halt the spread of COVID-19, to ensure democratic election, and to protect the country’s political stability. The regional elections, which aim to elect nine Governors, 224 Regents, and 37 Mayors at the same time, were originally scheduled in September 2020 (Nurhasim, 2020). However, through the adoption of the Government Regulation in Lieu of Acts (PERPPU) No. 2/2020 concerning the Election of Governors, Regents, and Mayors on 2 May 2020, the Government pushed the elections back to December 2020 (Government of Indonesia, 2020). Due to the uncertainty of the situation, there have been calls to further postpone the elections to June 2021 (Marchelin, 2020).
As the world’s fourth-largest democracy, Indonesia’s organizing a public vote amid COVID-19 is a significant challenge. Elections that are supposed to be a festival of democracy might lose its euphoric values due to the pandemic. Elections are not only about the occasion when voters use their rights to vote but also about the election process from the political campaign to the announcement of election results.
The election in Indonesia is already too expensive without the pandemic. An elected Regional Head must spend around IDR 28 billion (USD 2 million) to win the position, and a winning Governor must spend IDR 166 billion (USD 12 million) to win a governorship (Berenschot, 2019). As strict health protocols will be enforced due to the pandemic, the budget spent by candidates for political campaigns and by the Government to run the regional election is more likely to increase significantly. Consequently, the increase of election costs would fuel corruption even worse, further limiting the budget to improve public services, including healthcare facilities where it is needed most at this time.
The pandemic will reduce political participation because some people are more vulnerable than others towards the pandemic, such as the elderly and persons with disabilities (PWDs). In the 2019 election, only 1.25 million PWDs registered to vote, which is less than 5 percent of PWDs (Tamtomo, 2019). Moreover, the infrastructure to support PWDs during the election remains inadequate. Compared to the last year’s election, this year’s election with the pandemic would produce different turnouts as inequalities across different groups of people might be further intensified (James, 2020). For the fact that Indonesia is an archipelagic country, ensuring access to people in rural and remote areas to cast a vote is another challenge for Indonesia’s democracy. In fact, the National Election Commission has reduced its voter turnout’s target from 82 percent to 77.5 percent this time (Farisa, 2020b).
Besides affecting candidates and voters, the pandemic might also affect staff who organize the regional election. Reportedly, more than 600 volunteers who assisted the voting process in polling stations died of exhaustion during the election last year (Berenschot, 2019). If this situation is not mitigated, the 2020 regional election might possess a greater risk of death for elections’ staff.
Last year, the Indonesian Government was praised for its ability to hold the largest one-day elections However, this success might not be the case for Indonesia’s 2020 regional election, given the current circumstances. At worse, there might not be any elections in 2020. As such, questioning whether Indonesia’s democracy is at stake amid the global pandemic is important as a critical reflection to prepare the election in the worst possible scenario. In this crucial time, ensuring the regional election in December should be a priority. At the same time, reforming the election system needs to be done regularly by learning from the best practices and experience.
The Indonesian Government should learn from the South Korean Government that finished its national legislative election amid the pandemic. By implementing strict health protocols, such as obliging voters to wear physical protection such as face masks and disposable gloves, enforcing social distancing, and conducting temperature check before the voting process, the South Korean Government has successfully held the election, even with the increased voter turnout (Kim, 2020). Moreover, ensuring that everyone can use their right to vote regardless of their age, gender, religion, disability, geographical locations, as well as guaranteeing the well-being of election staff by improving election infrastructure are essential for reforming and nurturing Indonesia’s democracy.
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IFES. (2020). Elections postponed due to COVID-19 as of 10 June, 2020. https://www.ifes.org/sites/default/files/elections_postponed_due_to_covid-19.pdf
James, T. (2020, 17 March). Should elections be postponed because of coronavirus? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/should-elections-be-postponed-because-of-coronavirus-133819
Kim, A. B. (2020, 22 April). South Korea successfully holds elections during COVID-19 pandemic. The Heritage Foundation. https://www.heritage.org/asia/commentary/south-korea-successfully-holds-general-elections-during-covid-19-pandemic
Marchelin, T. (2020, 11 June). Democracy at stake: demands surface to postpone regional election until 2021. Jakarta Globe. https://jakartaglobe.id/news/democracy-at-stake-demands-surface-to-postpone-regional-election-until-2021
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